The ultimate user guide to face masks
How to choose the face covering that’s right for you
The coronavirus pandemic presents us with endless learning curves: how to socially distance, what remote learning looks like, how to adapt medical equipment to serve more than one patient at once, Zoom meeting etiquette, navigating business loan paperwork, and even relearning how to properly wash our hands.
Personal protection is no exception. When it comes to protecting ourselves and others from viral spread, we’ve been served a whole lexicon of terms usually reserved for those in medicine. Figuring out the differences and nuances among face masks and coverings is particularly fraught territory.
Let’s try to break it down.
First things first, not all face coverings are created equal. A face mask typically is a loose-fitting covering worn over the mouth and nose that helps catch airborne contaminants and repels splashes. A respirator is a cup-molded face covering that fits tightly around the mouth and nose, and effectively filters dangerous substances, including bioaerosols e.g., airborne viral droplets). In addition to medical applications, respirators are used in various industries for a range of activities to protect the respiratory system from dust, chemical fumes, ash, pollution or bacteria.
N95 v. KN95 respirators As masks go, these are your most effective defense against spreading or contracting Covid-19. Just like the name implies, N95 and KN95 respirator masks block at least 95% of airborne particles, including tiny, hard-to-capture particles that are 0.3 microns in size (for comparison, a human hair is 70-100 microns wide). They are classified as filtering facepiece respirators (FFR) because they provide a tight seal and are made with nonwoven polyethylene filtering material that catches bacteria as it is inhaled or exhaled.
Both cup-shaped respirators offer a snug fit and tight seal around the face. (Note: Facial hair, depending on placement and degree of growth, will impact seal efficacy.) So what’s the difference between an N95 and KN95? Here’s a closer look:
The primary difference between an N95 and a KN95 mask is where the mask is certified. Like devices in other industries, medical FFRs are subject to various regulatory standards around the world. These standards specify required physical properties, such as materials used, and performance characteristics ranging from flow rate to inward leakage to exhalation resistance. Respirators certified as meeting these standards function very similarly to one another, based on the stated performance requirements and conformity testing.
So, N95 masks are certified in the U.S. and KN95 masks are certified in China. In Europe, the analog respirators are called FFP2. The FDA has authorized use of KN95s in the U.S. given their nearly identical performance rate and greater availability. Choosing between an N95 and KN95 mask largely comes down to comfort preference and availability.
- Molded-cup shape.
- Features a metallic nosepiece for an adjustable fit.
- Two-strap design provides a tighter fit around nose and mouth. One elastic strap goes around the crown,fitting over the back of the head. The second strap fits underneath the ears and around the nape of the neck.
- Due to strap configuration, many cite a firmer, tighter fit than KN95.
- 3D conical shape is also foldable.
- Features an Invisible adjustable nosepiece for adjustable fit.
- Two elastic ear loops secure the mask in place.
- Many find the KN95 more comfortable because it fits over the ears instead of around the head.
3-ply surgical masks Compared to an N95 or KN95 respirator, a disposable surgical mask filters about 60 to 80% of airborne particles. According to the FDA, they repel liquids and mostly block “large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter that may contain germs.”
They consist of 3 pleated protective layers: an outer layer of non-woven fabric, a middle layer made of filtering fabric, and an inner layer made with soft, skin-gentle facial tissue. Unlike cloth masks, these are fluid-resistant and provide daily protection against airborne pollutants. Some prefer the looser fit of 3-ply masks, which fit over the ears with elastic loops, citing a feeling of breathing more easily.
Children’s 3-ply disposable masksThese have all the benefits of 3-ply surgical masks, with the added advantage of being sized right for kids. Getting children to wear a mask is challenging and it’s no good if you go to all the trouble only to have the mask droop down and fall off. Just like adult-sized surgical masks, these have stretchy ear loops and an ultra-soft inner layer for comfortable contact on skin.
Reusable cloth masksCloth masks are less effective at blocking contaminants because they aren’t fluid-resistant and don’t contain a filtering layer specifically designed to catch germs. The best versions use fabric that is dense enough to capture viral particles and lightweight enough to allow for easy breathing. The advantages of fabric masks are comfort, which might encourage extended and repeat wear; reusability (wash regularly), and availability.
Face shieldA face shield essentially is a piece of rigid, clear plastic attached to an adjustable headband. The plastic piece provides wraparound protection, covering the face and extending just below the chin.Healthcare providers wear face shields as an extra layer of critical protection to reduce viral transmission, with a N95 or KN95 respirator underneath.
Face shields are not really necessary for people other than healthcare workers, unless you need to be around others who aren’t wearing masks. For the most part, your best bet is to practice social distancing, wash hands well and frequently, and wear a good face mask.